New project aims to help unlock the mystery of tick-borne disease

July 14, 2016

An echidna tick, Bothriocroton concolor. Image by Siew-May Loh

An echidna tick, Bothriocroton concolor. Image by Siew-May Loh

Understanding why a growing number of Australians are diagnosed with a Lyme disease-like illness, presumed to be tick-borne, is the focus of a new highly innovative research project supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

In recent years, public and government concern about the potential for tick-borne diseases in people has increased considerably—including a parliamentary inquiry into the so-called Lyme disease-like illness — yet conclusive diagnosis to tick-borne disease remains elusive because of an uncertainty about its causative agent.

Uncertainty about Australian Lyme disease-like illness requires evidence-based science to identify the microorganisms responsible and provide conclusive data about the speed of infection after tick attachment.

To help address the national concerns to tick-borne disease, Professors Peter Irwin and Una Ryan and Dr Charlotte Oskam from the Vector and Water-Borne Pathogen Research Group (VWBPRG) at Murdoch University, together with researchers partners from the universities of Sydney and Queensland, were awarded a three-year ARC Linkage grant entitled “Tiresome ticks: Ecology and transmission of tick-borne disease in Australia”.

“The ARC Linkage project is in the national interest as there is currently intense media attention concerning an assumed link between tick bites and illness in Australians,” said Chief Investigator Professor Irwin.

“Tick-associated reactions are frequently reported in eastern Australia in areas that are experiencing unprecedented population growth. Given VWBPRG research findings and what is known about the vectorial capacity of ticks elsewhere in the world, it is not unreasonable to imagine that some cases of this clinical syndrome are associated with tick bites.

“We hope that this research will ultimately lead to improved diagnostic tests and management protocols for tick-borne diseases in Australia.”

The highly innovative project brings together a team of scientists with essential expertise in tick identification to provide a systematic and coordinated approach to determine the range of potential pathogens in wildlife and their ticks, characterise them, and conduct transmission studies of the organisms identified.

One of the measures within the National Innovation and Science Agenda is for the ARC to implement a continuous Linkage Projects scheme. The new research project will build on the foundations already established by the VWBPRG through previous ARC linkage grants to focus on the application of state-of-the-art molecular techniques to provide new information about the biology and transmission dynamics of the bacteria and parasites, and their potential to cause disease in wildlife, domesticated animals and humans.

“Most vector-borne diseases occur in people after they have encroached into natural habitats where the tick and wildlife reservoirs of the pathogenic organisms coexist in sylvatic ecologies,” said Professor Ryan.

“With funding from a previous ARC Linkage grant, we successfully developed a toolkit using next generation sequencing to uncover a plethora of tick-associated bacteria, providing new information to inform the debate on this highly vexed issue.

“Our track record with vector-borne disease has seen our research group considered the leading research team in Australia. This project aims to build on our research, by taking the expertise, tools, methods, network of collaborations and findings to the next stage.”

It is anticipated outcomes from the project will advance the industry knowledge base that could provide avenues for novel drug targets in the future.

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